A page on our trips to Walt Disney World where we’ve had some of our favourite family vacations. More than a casual vacation spot for us, we are essentially ‘Disney addicts’.
Along with Camping (which is our favourite summer activity), Disneyworld is our favourite family vacation spot. Even before we had kids we’d been to Disney twice – it was the first place my wife and I went when we got together (both of us had also been when we were kids growing up with our families).
A Decade (plus) of Disney Trips
In 2001, when the kids were old enough, we flew down in our first family trip to Disneyworld (and it was a trip of many firsts) and in 2003 we went again, this time staying in our RV at Fort Wilderness. We’ve gone again numerous times – at least once a year since 2005 – and yup, we’re officially Disney addicts. It’s a place where we can all “be a kid” and get away from regularity …. no cellphones, no instant messaging, no texting, just fun. (One could claim we are, as a family, ‘stuck with each other for a week’ and perhaps that is part of it as well).
While we liked taking the trailer in May and camping, many of our later trips were in December, and so taking the trailer was somewhat impractical as it would have required dewinterizing the unit in warmer climates and towing through some awful winter weather (namely the mountains of Pennsylvania and Virginia) to get there. On various trips we’ve stayed at Pop Century, All Star Movies, Port Orleans Riverside, Port Orleans French Quarter, and in the wilderness cabins at Fort Wilderness: hardly ‘roughing it’, these cabins feature air conditioning and a dishwasher!
… and while you’d think that not much would have changed over the course of the years, as our family has grown-up the nature of our trips has changed from simple amusement (rides, rides, rides = rush, rush, rush) to a more relaxed vacation doing all those _other_ things like taking-in shows and relaxing at dinners. One of the things I particularly enjoy nowadays is to sit down for an hour and a half to enjoy a relaxing dinner in the middle of a hectic day!
So, what makes this place so appealing to us that we’d travel here once a year?
Taking the trailer is a great idea, but in December it is highly impractical and even at other times of the year like May and October we don’t always have two or three days extra to get there and another few days to get back so flying is usually the most practical option. During the mid-2000’s Southwest offered fares as low as $49 US to Florida … you can see how we managed to do this trip many times previously without going broke … but nowadays $129 to $149 one-way is more common (a sure sign that the economy must be getting better!). It’s fun leaving an airport covered in snow, and watching the plane be de-iced before takeoff (sometimes twice) then arriving in mid-80’s Florida just a few hours later. Leaving snow is generally an appealing thing!
We always stay on Disney itself. In the past, Pop Century (a value resort) was our preferred spot – it’s clean and we really don’t spend much time in our room so amenities like a nice pool are often lost on us. Lately, we’re stayed at Port Orleans French Quarter, a moderate resort, since Disney had had a habit lately of offering free dining (by special offer to previous guests) only when you stay in a more expensive resort. I’m cheap, but the math is simple: when we were on the “full” dining plan which includes one table-service meal each day it was actually cheaper to stay at the moderate resort. Aside from saving money (I’m cheap), Port Orleans is a quaint little resort (the smallest of any Disney resort) quite nicely decorated in the theme of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Small cobblestone-lined streets enhance the charm of the place along with wrought-iron trim everywhere. Having had a rocky time with Disney’s luggage delivery service in the past (it’s free, but you get what you pay for), lately I’ve rented a car while there.
We usually have breakfast in the room – coffee and a bagel is all we eat at home so why would I go for a larger offering here? In the past, the coffee was so absolutely HORRID we had brought our own coffeemaker and coffee from home but they seem to have improved it a lot and last year we just used what they supplied in the rooms. I just CANNOT start my day without two cups of decent coffee! And later at night, well, sometimes a cappuccino helps then as well (I started drinking cappuccino when I discovered how awful the coffee was at the park as well … it’s hard to bugger-up espresso when it’s made by a real machine … it is now a staple when I visit the Goofy’s Candy Company store).
So, our days usually begin with breakfast in the room, often left-over dessert from the previous night’s meal. Ever had Pecan pie for breakfast? I have. I highly recommend it once a year while on vacation! A favourite of the kids are the cinnamon buns in Magic Kingdom – we often pick up a few at the end of a long day at the park to have the next morning. No, common-sense does not apply to nutrition choices for the entire week although the kids drink milk every morning. In the past, we were part of “fridge swaps” to avoid paying $12+ a day for an in-room fridge (I did say I was cheap, remember) but nowadays the resorts all have fridges.
Dining is a big part of our vacation – we don’t eat out a lot while at home and so it’s a real treat to go somewhere different and interesting each night. For me, personally, I really enjoy dining – it is my one and a half hours of enforced relaxation during an otherwise hectic day. In earlier trips to Disney we’d always eaten the standard greasy fast-food fare that most people eat but we’ve discovered some nice restaurants catering to every taste. A personal favourite is Le Cellier in EPCOT. Being Canadian (since Le Cellier is the “Canadian” restaurant) has little to bias me towards this restaurant as being my favourite: the filet with the trufle sauce is just downright excellent and the ambience of a quiet, stone-laden wine cellar in the middle of park full of a mass of humanity makes for a nice change of pace – judging from the fact they book-up solid for reservations months in advance leads me to believe there are a host of others who agree. The relaxed attitude might change, mind you, when you get the bill for this place which is downright pricey … we are usually on the dining plan (otherwise I’d have a hard time shelling-out over $150 for a meal) so there’s no sticker-shock there. Of course I’m afraid that with the economy improving even these free-dining days are numbered so I’ll enjoy the good times while they last.
Over the years, we have tried a lot of restaurants ranging from high-end (Le Cellier, Fultons) to Pub-Grub (like the SciFi). Some of my favourites include Mama Melrose’s in Hollywood studios (with my favourite dish being the Clams Oreganata appetizer), the Plaza in Magic Kingdom (which is a great value and features the _best_ milkshakes in all of Disney), and most recently (2013) the Garden Grille. We had tried the Garden Grille in 2005 and I was completely underwhelmed. While I was expecting fresh faire, everything was battered and deep-fried. Many years later, and the meal was refreshing with a most excellent tilapia. And to beat all, it was a character dinner so various Disney characters come around to meet and greet as you dine. I’m not a huge fan of meet-and-greets but this one was downright fun (who knows, perhaps it was just my good mood that day), and Chip and Dale were quite playful with Chip seen here helping Jennifer with her drink!
There are many nice restaurants, but Disney also has some restaurants which provide a unique experience you just cannot experience anywhere else like the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theatre and the 50’s Prime-Time Cafe in Hollywood Studios, or the Royal Table in Cinderella’s Castle.
Now, my _personal_ favourite is the inexpensive Sci-Fi to which we’ve been several times in the past: more for the camp atmosphere of a fifties drive-in theatre showing low-budget horror flicks than anything else (since the food is just “average”). They advertise it as ‘eating good food while watching bad movies’ – movie trailers from such “classics” as “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. This particular venue is what I consider as a true Disney experience – something you just won’t find anywhere else :). p.s. I recommend trying the artichoke and spinach dip with tortilla chips … tastes _way_ better than it sounds!
Eating is great, and from the sounds of it you might think it is the main reason we came – kinda like a cruise?, but rides and shows are, of course, the primary reason to visit and Disney does pay attention to detail which separates rides here from offerings at other parks. All major rides are themed – you’ll never find “just a ride” here since each has a story built around it – and so each features a pre-show which, in many cases, is as entertaining as the ride itself. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (a personal favourite) features a particularly amusing pre-show complete with an introduction by “Rod Serling” in the dusty library of a derelict hotel, a walk through a creepy boiler room, and another pre-show sequence as the ride car makes it’s way to the elevator shaft followed by the anticipated drops. Speaking of drops, on one trip I did a little science (Even on vacation, I’m still a scientist) and I brought along a homebuilt recording three-axis accelerometer which records the acceleration in three axes. Among other things I integrated the data twice for Tower to reveal the exact sequences we went through revealing the layout of the ride (talk about spoiling the magic). Data from other rides like Everest at Animal Kingdom revealed FOUR G’s during a backwards half-pipe (which explains why I feel like I’m going to lose my lunch … I _never_ eat before going on that one). Mission Space was another interesting one to analyze (for example, to determine how they make you feel weightless during one part of the ride).
Indeed, ‘Mission Space’ is for the adventurous but be forewarned that you pull real G’s (see my analysis of the ride) and could easily be construed as a ‘vomit comet’ … there are air sickness bags right inside the ride and I understand they are frequently used! (I did the ‘orange team’ _once_ in 2005 when it was still quite vicious – it’s been “tamed down” since then). For the less rugged, try the green team for the same experience without the G forces. Rock ‘n Roller Coaster is another thrill ride which features a linear launch instead of a drop (in other words: zero to sixty in 2.6 seconds on a flat track).
Well, not all rides pull large G’s and my favourite, Splash Mountain, is relatively tame. At it’s heart, it’s really a very basic log flume ride but Disney turned it into an entertainment extravaganza! For over eight minutes the rider is slowly taken through the animated tale of Brer Rabbit (which makes a lot more sense if you’ve seen the movie the ride is based upon, Song of the South, but can be followed regardless). Along the way, you encounter a drop into the briar patch (“the” drop) but that element is by no means the entire focus of the ride as it would be in a ‘regular’ log flume ride – the show attached to the ride is by far more entertaining than the “mechanical” elements of the ride, namely the drop. Attention to detail is also a Disney hallmark … in this ride, like most others, no details were spared. And that makes this log flume ride special as opposed to the hundreds of other log flume rides in hundreds of other amusement parks anywhere.
There are still other slow-moving, entertaining rides – the so-called “dark rides” that Disney made famous. I like a blend of both entertainment and a few thrills (although Disney lacks most of those “crazy” wild rides, thankfully) so the rides here are just my style. On classics like “Haunted Mansion” and “Pirates of the Carribean” it’s pretty much all about entertainment (as in “sit down, keep your eyes open, and enjoy the ride”) … these are the rides for which Disney is famous. (Think “stretching room” on Haunted Mansion). And while we all like these ‘traditional’ Disney “dark rides” a new favourite is Soarin’, an IMAX-based hangglider simulator ride which makes you really feel like you’re flying over scenic wonders in California and no detail is missed: when flying over an orange grove, for example, orange scent is wafted through the air … they don’t seem to miss a thing.
And let’s not forget the catchy Disney-tunes which run through your head long after you get home. Ever found yourself humming “It’s a Small World”??. Parades, shows, and many rides feature catchy tune and I’ve often wondered how they come up with these – is there some magic formula to write a tune that just will not leave your head??
While Animal Kingdom is not my favourite park, one of my favourite rides here, my personal “Raison d’être” for going to this park at all, is the Kilimanjaro Safari ride which takes you through various zones filled with wildlife from Africa. On this particular trip we took-in a safari early in the day, when some animals like the big cats were sleeping but others were quite active, and then did a second safari with a FastPass at the end of the day (one of the last tours going out before the safari closed before sunset). THAT turned out to be the best of all for the lion decided to wake for his upcoming dinner, walked up on a rock, and presented his mane-adorned face to the golden afternoon sun. What a sight!
OK, I know it’s basically a zoo, but it _really_ does not feel like any zoo I’ve been in!
Considering Disney is all about movies, it’s no surprise the shows they present are just plain well done. Take the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular at Hollywood Studios for example. With the audience in a large covered theatre, actors portray scenes like those you’d see in an Indiana Jones movie complete with pyrotechnics … and they do it several times each day. In all of the parks, various attractions are indeed shows like the live-action “Voyage of the Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” stage shows.
A few shows involve audience participation like the Backstage Tour. During the pre-show, four guests are selected to act in “Harbor Attack”. Oddly, we’ve been chosen several times for the experience (guess we look like the type of people who enjoy being bombed with water).
Love parades? Disney does them in style, too! Speaking as an engineer, from a purely technical perspective these are the most elaboratley synchronized displays I’ve ever seen. Music preceeding the parades, and background music during the parade, is perfectly synchronized. Excellent engineering errr PIXIE DUST, yeah, that’s it, it’s all that Disney magic about.
Now, the timing of many of our trips was no accident: the week before Christmas is a “lower crowd” time (although it’s catching-on and so we’ve seen significant increase in crowds during this time) and one in which all of the parks are decorated for the holiday season. Close to Christmas, the ‘regular’ parades give way to the Christmas parades which are particularly elaborate (although to see these parades you have to encroach on the very busy Christmas peak so the crowds become tiring quickly – we’re only good for a day or two of this). “Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmastime Parade”, shown here, is one of the best parades I’ve seen in terms of detail.
Like a lot of other attractions, Disney’s parades always have a catchy tune which seems to linger long after you come home … from the theme for the “Dreams come true” parade to the nighttime parade, these pop into your head at the weirdest times.
And Shows? We still take-in many of the same shows we’re seen. Like a good movie, you can see it over and over again without getting tired of it. On this particular trip (2011) the kids were both selected for the “Harbor Attack” sequence in which they play the part of sailors on a WW-2 patrol boat being torpedoed (and soaked with water – hence the blue rainsuits they put them in). After several sequences were shot they stitched together these with stock footage to make a short clip about a patrol boat being attacked.
Now, attractions are all good, but there is also the ambiance of the place during the day, and especially, for me, at night. When you’re in the park, you are completely immersed in a different world and Disney ensures you have no real awareness of the “real world” outside. When you are in Animal Kingdom in the African area, you really feel like you’re there or at least what you picture it would be (save, perhaps, for the modern bathrooms). And at Hollywood Studios, well, I guess this is what the 1920’s would look like.
One of the more hilarious episodes on our 2011 trip occured at Hollywood Studios during lunch. While eating at the food area outside Tower of Terror, two actors dressed in 1930’s garb showed-up to sit behind us: one was a famous movie star and the other an inept reporter. The reported kept asking the stupidest questions while to poor movie star tried his best not to strangle the idiot! Well, here’s Christina trying not to pay too much attention ..
At EPCOT, these three guys (one guy named Stan, and another named Lee) were drumming using hardware items like garbage cans and toolboxes (get it … Stanley?). They were surprisingly good.
Night, for me, is particularly magical. I enjoy night scenes and especially photography at night (one reason why I opted for a Canon “S” camera with a particularly sensitive detector). Fireworks over the castle during the Wishes show are a must at least once during each trip but just walking around the parks after dark presents a host of eye candy like Big Thunder mountain lit up to reveal a host of shadowy details. Of course it helps, too, that the crowds diminish at night so many rides are essentially “walk on” especially during non-peak times. And during this time of the year Hollywood studios features the Osborne spectacle of dancing lights in which an entire street is adorned with millions of lights all sequenced to Christmas music (for example, Trans-Siberian Orchestra). They even add to the experience with fake snow (although I think this is closer to spit than snow, and we are indeed experts in snow).
A Few Cherished Memories
Disney is a place where memories are made, and since we’ve been there with the kids over a dozen times we’ve got plenty of fond memories to share. Here’s a few of my favourites …
A Look into Disney Past
If you’re nostalgic like me, you might enjoy a flashback to some long-gone Disneyana that I dug-up …
And speaking of “Disney Past”, here’s a scan of an old Disney guidemap. It is undated, but judging from the attractions, and when I was there as a kid, probably dates around 1972-1973. A few neat attractions no longer at the Magic Kingdom include the Main Street Cinema, 20000 Leagues, Flight to the Moon, and the Skyway between Tomorrowland & Fantasyland.
Strangely, “If You Had Wings” which opened in 1972 is not shown on the map (although I recall it being there). Carousel of Progress nor Space Mountain are shown on this map as they opened later in 1975, nor are the later Thunder Mountain (1980) and Splash Mountain (1992) attractions.
A few years later, and we took a second trip to Disney staying in my uncle’s motor home. This guidebook from 1976 holds a host of good memories! Aside from the guidemap on the last page, showing rides at the time, these pages also list the ticket required for each attraction. At this time, Disney sold coupon books and a ticket, varying in vaue from “A” through “E” with an “E” ticket being required for the best and most popular rides.
I’m sure you’ll get a kick out of this one and it will certainly educate you as to the origins of the phrase “An E-Ticket Ride”! (And if you ever stay at Pop Century, look in the display cabinets of memorabilia in the main lobby: they have a real “E-Ticket” in there).
Oh, and the big NEW ride for 1976: Space Mountain which had just opened.
We still collect park maps periodically so we can cherish those great rides we remember like “Journey Into Imagination” … this is one ride I sadly miss: the original with figment which closed in 1998 (I saw it in 1991 and 1992). Recently, on YouTube and Vimeo (search ‘Disney’, ‘Journey’, ‘Imagination’ and look for the original by Martin Smith), I saw a home movie (a very, very professional one, though) of the original and was reminded just how magical that ride was (for me, at least). Figment, a mythical little character with…
Two tiny wings, eyes big and yellow.
Horns of a steer, but a loveable fellow.
From head to tail, he’s royal purple pigment.
And there–Voila!–you’ve got a Figment!
… guides us through many possible scenes in our imagination. Our host, Dreamfinder, begins by collecting “sounds, colors, ideas — anything that sparks the imagination” in the idea bag and from there, we take a flight of fancy. My favourite scene was the tale of monsters where we see figment holding a book closed from which monsters appear to be trying to escape. Watching the movie still gives me the “warm fuzzies” :). I am unsure as to why Disney ever got rid of the ride, only to replace it years later with something considerably less inspired, but I suppose for every ride Disney has ever changed there is a fan out there who laments it.
A dream can be a dream come true,
With just that spark in me and you.